Law firms and clients both want well-crafted requests for proposals (RFPs). Turnover, particularly of complex or sensitive legal matters, carries high costs. All parties involved want RFPs that effectively provide all the information businesses need in order to make the best decisions. How do we get there? To get the right result, organizations need to approach RFPs strategically.

RFPs Have Changed

Years ago, RFPs had broad questions that allowed for general responses. In addition, procurement departments sometimes sent RFPs to law firms that were virtually identical to the RFPs they sent to their other vendors.
For example, an RFP asked lawyers to provide the results of their most recent tuberculosis tests (because that’s what the business asked its lunchroom vendors) and the amount of their commercial vehicle insurance coverage (because that’s what the business asked of its delivery drivers).

Those days are over.

Today’s RFPs are crafted by people who understand the legal services they are seeking. They have expedited deadlines and strict page limits. They ask specific, substantive legal and value-oriented questions.

RFP Responses Are Dress Rehearsals for Legal Work

Time and page limits on RFPs are not mere technicalities.

A law firm that cannot meet deadlines, stay within page limits, and answer all parts of a question in an RFP is providing important information regarding the firm’s ability to meet client requirements.

That said, overly tight word counts and deadlines can inadvertently preclude valuable information on differentiators.

Organizations issuing RFPs should strike a balance based on their specific needs. For example:

  • A business hit with an unexpected class action cannot waste time. It needs targeted information—succinct enough for quick review—on the proposed litigation team, the claims, opposing counsel, and the venue.
  • On the other hand, a multinational organization looking for a firm that can handle a wide range of practice areas in vastly different jurisdictions—and that cares a great deal about outside counsel culture, communication, technology, and diversity—may be better served by providing firms with more time and space to demonstrate their ability to meet those needs.
  • A business with a generous page limit may get an RFP response from a law firm that provides information above and beyond what the business asks for. To decide whether this additional material is helpful and whether it reflects well on the firm, the people reviewing the RFP may ask, “Did the firm correctly anticipate our needs? Does this additional information show that these lawyers understand our industry and the issues we are facing?”

Regardless of page limits, clear, concise prose is not simply a boon to a legal brief—it provides information about how well a firm communicates in writing. It shows whether an attorney’s writing or editing style is readable for the in-house counsel who will work with her.

Craft RFPs to Reflect Concrete Needs and Priorities

RFPs have different goals, and RFP questions need to serve those goals. For example:

  • If a business wants to select a group of firms for a preferred provider panel, it needs to reference information about each firm’s full capabilities to draw upon when the time comes to select a panel firm for a specific project that has arisen.
  • If, on the other hand, a different business needs immediate help with a specific project—such as advice on workplace safety issues—it needs information on the legal team that will handle the project and team members’ specific experience in its industry. Industry knowledge by firm lawyers who will not work on the project is not particularly useful.

When it comes to business needs, the right questions can help reveal vital differences between firms.

  • If a multinational organization is looking for legal services in multiple jurisdictions and prefers to handle each jurisdiction separately, where local outside counsel communicates with a local team, it may make sense to focus questions solely on locations. Law firms with international affiliates in every place the multinational organization has needs may work best.
  • On the other hand, if a different multinational organization wants cross-border help—where one outside counsel contact can review legal issues in multiple jurisdictions, identify when legal requirements in those jurisdictions conflict, and advise on multijurisdictional solutions—simply asking about foreign office locations may not produce the integrated strategy assistance that the business needs. Instead, this organization should ask targeted questions about the model for serving one business strategy in multiple countries.

Pricing Questions Are Not the Only Questions about Cost

Asking the right questions is particularly vital when it comes to pricing. Legal pricing is a matter of priorities. Some businesses prioritize having the lowest possible legal spend, while others need a predictable legal spend. Some want a preferred provider panel for the advantages of having prescreened law firms with locked-in rates and flexibility about which firms to use; others want the kind of high-value, high-predictability pricing and gains in efficiency that come from a “portfolio” arrangement with one firm. Organizations can ask about different pricing models, but other questions in the RFP—questions that do not bear directly on pricing—also factor in.

For example, an organization that is regularly presented with claims that are unlikely to proceed to trial may have minimizing legal spend as its number one priority. This organization should not devote the bulk of its RFP to questions about jury trial experience. Trial work is expensive. Instead, the organization may want to ask specific questions about success with dispositive motions, such as motions to dismiss and motions for summary judgment.

The Bottom Line

Businesses and law firms alike need to think strategically about how to leverage RFPs to identify the right firms to deliver value and meet business needs. If possible, businesses should consult in-house legal team members before RFPs go out the door, not just after responses arrive. When the responses do come in, businesses should take note of law firms’ timeliness, clarity, specificity, and ability to anticipate business needs accurately, as well as to provide concrete answers.